University of California San Diego mechanical engineering professor Michael Tolley and a team of researchers have created what is said to be the first ‘soft’ robot that is able to handle traveling on rough terrain. The robot features a total of four legs that were made using 3D-printing, and with them the robot is able to walk across rough surfaces like sand, as well as crawling over larger objects. The company demonstrated the robot’s walking capabilities in a video.
The small robots walk with something like an insectoid cadence — if you were far enough away, you may mistake it for a large spider. This robot, like other soft robots, is safer to use in places where it will be near and may directly interact with humans — the soft legs mean there’s little chance of it hurting someone versus hard metallic legs. Implementing rigid materials into the soft legs allowed for their relatively complex shape.
Such a robot design has other benefits, too. The use of 3D-printing to create the robot rather than injected molds means a lower overall cost for the manufacturer; likewise, creation speeds are much faster. Being able to walk is key to this particular soft robot’s success, opening the door for larger or more specialized soft robots with the same human-friendly construction. Potential uses include things like investigating harsh, inhospitable environments and searching for lost humans.
The walking movement is achieved through a series of inflatable chambers and actuators; selective inflation allows for different types of leg movements to simulate walking. The speed at which the chambers are inflated and deflated determine how fast this little robot can travel. Commercial-level soft robots with a design like this would likely feature the pumps used to inflate and deflate the chambers as integrated components.